For years prior to the March 2011 uprising in Syria, writers of the sketch comedy series Buq‘at Daw’ (Spotlight) used symbolism and wordplay to mount a not-so-subtle challenge to the regime on state television. [1. Rebecca Joubin, “Resistance Amid Regime Cooptation on the Syrian Television Series Buq‘at Daw’, 2001-2012,” Middle East Journal 68/1 (Winter 2014).] In a 2002 skit, written by Samir al-Barqawi and directed by Layth Hajju, a teacher chalks tumuh (ambition) on the board and asks his pupils to tell him what theirs might be. One boy, Sa‘id, duly jots down his life goal on a piece of paper. The camera never shows what the child has written, but the teacher is so frightened by what he sees that he calls in the school’s principal to deal with the “disaster.” The boy’s father is summoned, and he is likewise terrified. “I’ll do everything in my power to erase this idea from his mind,” he tells the principal. “By the time he returns to school, he’ll have no more ambition left. I’ll turn him back into an ordinary citizen.” At home he tears up Sa‘id’s books, and blocks Al Jazeera and other television channels that cover politics. The boy comes back a week later to tell his teacher, “I’m your servant. I’ll act as you wish.” What does he want to be in the future now? “I don’t want to become anything. My head is empty like this paper.” The adults clap and shake hands, but tears of regret fill the father’s eyes.
The crushing of dreams in school was a recurring theme in Syrian television and film for decades under the Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad regimes. The character of the teacher often stood in for the coercive state apparatus—if not the dictator himself. Cultural producers found ways to tell the harsh truth: Primary and secondary schools were engines of mass literacy but also factories of political and ideological discipline that stifled critical thinking. Another common thread in storylines was the corrosive effect of corruption: A university degree had little worth as a means of social advancement for anyone who was not already well connected with the regime or the business elite.
In a much different way, the quality of education has remained a major trope of Syrian television dramas since the uprising, the brutal regime reprisals and the subsequent civil war. Some narratives on state television now focus on how a war that was forced upon the regime has dismantled a school system that was a source of national pride and a ticket to a decent, dignified life for the country’s youth. Writers and directors of all political persuasions—in serials airing inside and outside Syria—use the plight of refugee children in particular to make claims about who or what is responsible for the Syrian catastrophe and what the future will bring. The regime-sympathizing dramas are apt to cast the schoolchild as a beacon of resilience that holds out the promise of putting the nation back together, once it is rid of certain “undesirable” social elements. Others have darker visions. The best and most nuanced serials are those that demystify rather than “other” the experience of growing up in wartime.
Education Before and After
The Syrian conflict has hurt children badly and disproportionately. Untold tens of thousands of children are among the war dead, and normal life has been completely disrupted for millions more. Before the fighting began, according to UNICEF, an estimated 97 percent of Syrian children attended primary school and 67 percent secondary school. The corresponding literacy rates of 90 percent for both men and women equaled those of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and well surpassed those of Egypt and Iraq. [2. UNICEF, Education Interrupted (December 2013).]
Today, by contrast, many displaced Syrians aged 6-17 are receiving no formal education at all. A 2013 UNICEF report found that 2.2 million children displaced within Syria were not attending school. [3. Ibid.] Thousands of schools have been destroyed or refashioned into shelters for displaced persons, military staging grounds or detention centers. [4. Syrian Network for Human Rights, “A Report on the Destruction of Schools and Its Consequences,” 2016.] A 15-year old girl displaced from Aleppo, where the fighting has been particularly heavy, told UNICEF reporters that her peers feared walking to school because of snipers. [5. UNICEF, “Emergency School Supplies Promote Learning Amid an Education Crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic,” October 31, 2013.] With some combatants using rape as a “weapon of war,” parents are increasingly reluctant to allow daughters to go to school, exacerbating gender inequities. [6. Marta Guasp Teschendorff, “Loss of Access to Education Puts Wellbeing of Syrian Girls at Risk,” Our World, September 17, 2015.]
About half of the Syrian refugees outside the country, moreover, are under 18. According to the same 2013 UNICEF report, about a half-million of these youngsters are not in school, either. Studies suggest that enrollment rates in the closest host countries may be as low as 20 percent in Lebanon and 30 percent in Turkey (though considerably higher in Jordan). [7. Selcuk Sirin and Lauren Rogers-Sirin, The Educational and Mental Health Needs of Syrian Refugee Children (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, October 2015).] Even if refugee children have legal access to education, they are often discouraged from attending by language barriers (in Turkey), confusing regulations and economic hardship. [8. Human Rights Watch, “When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing”: Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Turkey (New York, November 2015).] Their parents often cannot obtain work permits or earn fair wages, making the families dependent on supplemental income from child labor. There are many reports of girls entering into early marriages to ease the family’s economic burden. Even when enrolled, Syrian refugee children are more likely than their non-refugee peers to receive poor grades or drop out, as they cannot overcome the disruption of their education, particularly not when studying a new curriculum in a foreign language. [9. Sirin and Rogers-Sirin, op cit.]
Children displaced by the conflict are often suffering emotionally as well. In 2014, for example, UNICEF reported that nearly one third of the children living in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp were living in fear of kidnapping or death. Evidence of trauma includes nightmares, bedwetting, crying, screaming and withdrawal. The stress associated with refugee flight may also be contributing to increased rates of familial violence. The school setting is not necessarily safe, either, as refugee youth report discrimination, bullying by local youth and both physical and verbal abuse in schools. [10. Ibid.; UNICEF, Under Siege: The Devastating Impact On Children of Three Years of Conflict in Syria (March 2014), pp. 11-12.]
UN agencies and international NGOs collect and recite these grim statistics as a call to humanitarian action on the part of donor countries. The underlying message is that donor nations must invest adequately in educational infrastructure for refugees—or else. In the words of one UNICEF report: “Despite all that they have suffered, Syria’s children still find a reason for hope. Most cherish the belief that one day they will return to a peaceful Syria, to rekindle old friendships and revive old dreams.” The UNICEF authors continued: “But their resilience is being tested to the limit…. The trap of anguish, sorrow and futility is claiming a whole generation of young Syrians. They sense their future is under siege.” [11. UNICEF, Under Siege, pp. 12-13.] A Human Rights Watch report quoted Shaza Barakat, a Syrian educator in Istanbul, spelling out the consequences: “If a child doesn’t go to school, it will create big problems in the future—they will end up on the streets, or go back to Syria to die fighting, or be radicalized into extremists, or die in the ocean trying to reach Europe.” (Barakat’s own son died fighting for the rebels.) [12. Human Rights Watch, “When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing.”]
Narratives of “Othering”
The interruption of education by war and refugee flight is a regular subject of dramas on state television since the uprising. In most depictions, which deny the refugees agency, there is an evident sympathy for the regime’s way of seeing things: Prior to the war, Syrian parents were able to educate their children properly and all was well. Syrians who have fled the fighting are in some way “other” (and, by implication, less) than those who have stayed behind.
There is now nostalgia on state television for the function of schooling as a source of social order, where once there was critique. An illustrative example is the aforementioned Buq‘at Daw’, which went off the air in 2013, and reappeared in 2014 with its former critical edge considerably dulled. The writer Hazim Sulayman’s skit “Mr. Najib” opens with scenes of youngsters playing near dilapidated tents, UN cars in the background, and then a teacher appears attempting to control his classroom. At the sound of a supply truck his students run pell-mell outside. The teacher, Najib, is horrified—what if someone had posted pictures of the chaos on the Internet? Take turns, he instructs the children. Later, two Syrian war profiteers approach Najib with a plan to distribute goods in the camp. At first the teacher refuses, but the men insist. It turns out that Najib, whose name means “pure” in Arabic, is easily corrupted. Still later, he wants to bring in young filmmakers to document the camp’s misery in order to arouse pity and attract donations from outsiders. The sketch clearly implies that both the refugees and those offering them support are less than honorable.
Other dramas amplify a second “othering” component of regime narratives about the refugees—that they are uniquely vulnerable to the predations and manipulations of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists. It is commonly agreed among Syrian cultural producers that Taht Sama’ al-Watan (Under the Nation’s Sky), directed by Najdat Anzour, propagates such ideas, which aim to stoke sectarian fears. This 2013 miniseries is composed of three-episode stories that deal directly with what Anzour calls the azma (crisis).
The installment “‘Aziza from Baba ‘Amr,” written by Hala Diab and directed by Anzour, is set in the sprawling Zaatari camp in Jordan. The Sunni sheikhs there are portrayed as lascivious hypocrites who encourage parents to sell their teenage girls into early marriage in order to protect them. The leading sheikh, indeed, proclaims that marrying raped girls is an act of jihad. The story of “‘Aziza from Baba ‘Amr” centers on Hanan, a 15-year old girl from a war-ravaged neighborhood of Homs who yearns to return to Syria and complete her studies. When camp gossip spreads that Hanan has been raped, she insists the rumor is false. But her father, fearful of scandal, marries her to Yusuf, who rapes and impregnates his young bride on the wedding night and then abandons her in an Amman hotel. Afterward a woman who prostitutes teenage girls takes in Hanan and tries to sell her off to some men, one of whom turns out to be the selfsame Yusuf. But there is a glimmer of hope: Hanan escapes and finds her way to an Amman social worker who says that since her marriage was improper, she has the right to abort her pregnancy and pursue her education in Jordan. Hanan’s tale ends here—with the implication that education will empower her and that personal resilience will be her redemption. There is no hint of the frustrations so commonly encountered by aspiring young professionals in the serials of the pre-uprising era nor, for that matter, of any legitimate grievance that might spark a popular revolt.
A Lost Generation
The theme of idle refugee children imperiled by Islamic extremism also runs through Ghadan Naltaqi (Tomorrow We Shall Meet, 2015), written by Iyad Shammat, based in Lebanon, and airing on LDC and Abu Dhabi TV. Ghadan Naltaqi adopts what could be seen as a neutral stance toward the conflict: The main storyline follows two brothers, Mahmoud and Jabir, as well as Warda, the woman who loves the former and is loved by the latter. Jabir is pro-regime and Mahmoud is with the opposition. At one point the brothers fight over Warda, causing a fire that destroys her apartment. The idea is that both sides have burned down Syria.
Most of the action in Ghadan Naltaqi occurs in a run-down apartment complex in Beirut owned by an elderly Syrian named Abu Riyad. The refugees there are struggling to survive while doing all they can to leave for Europe. The miniseries breaks new ground in technique, with its haunting close-ups of refugees waiting and waiting for a new life to begin. None of the children in the complex are in school. In an early scene, Abu Riyad scatters the kids playing outside, before arranging for a minibus to take them to odd jobs in the city. Better they work, he says, than roam the streets.
The love triangle storyline also features a young boy out of school, Mazin, whom Warda has taken in. Both of Mazin’s parents have been killed, and he has escaped from a camp where his uncle repeatedly beat him. Warda takes the boy to the hospital to recover from the typhoid fever he contracted on the run. She also goes to the camp to retrieve the identity papers he needs to attend school, but the abusive uncle rebuffs her. Mazin asks over and over for lessons, so Jabir begins to tutor him. But this arrangement ends when Warda refuses Jabir’s advances; she asks her beau Mahmoud to take up the tutoring task though he is less talented than his brother. Thus the love triangle—symbolizing the warring parties at home—impedes the education of the young generation of Syrians in exile.
The miniseries also offers a consistently negative portrayal of Islam. The religious conservative Abu Riyad hits the small boys if he sees them looking at women, as does his tenant Abu ‘Abduh, who also pops the boys’ soccer ball, which he says resembles the Satan of the West. Abu ‘Abduh constantly enjoins his son Jamal to pray. In the end, Jamal joins ISIS, and when his father searches for him in the north, he is beheaded. Ghadan Naltaqi thus reinforces the narrative of a lost generation of refugee children longing for education, but lacking the means, putting them in danger of succumbing to religious fanaticism.
Growing Up in Wartime
During the first week of December 2012, Layth Hajju, now based in Dubai, began filming Sa-Na‘ud Ba‘da Qalil (We Will Return Soon), produced by Klaket and O3 Production, and broadcast on the pan-Arab channels LBC and MBC during Ramadan of 2013. Inspired by Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 movie Everybody’s Fine, [13. “‘Sa-Na‘ud Ba‘da Qalil’…Musalsal Suri Yarsud Harakat Nuzuh al-Suriyyin bi-Lubnan,” Hiwar, March 19, 2013.] Lebanon-based screenwriter Rafi Wahbi aspired to capture the human suffering on all sides of the conflict, while on the surface remaining neutral. According to the noted television editor Iyad Shihab Ahmad, Wahbi represents Syrian intellectuals who do not directly announce their opposition to the regime, but relay their political opinions via symbol and metaphor. [14. Interview with Iyad Shihab Ahmad, March 7, 2014.] (Openly pro-opposition cultural producers have an increasingly hard time securing funding for their projects.)
The story of Sa-Na‘ud Ba‘da Qalil commences with the widowed Najib, who lives in the Old City of Damascus, displaying that he is in denial about the depth of the disaster in Syria even as explosions reverberate in the background. During the first third of the miniseries, as Najib describes the “perfect” lives of his children, their decidedly imperfect lives unfold before the viewers.
One son, Karim, has left for Lebanon with his wife and child, but his wife, Lina, pines for home. When the story opens she complains to her husband that it is getting more and more difficult to put their son Shadi, 6, to sleep. The boy is traumatized by the war and insists on sleeping between his parents. Karim chides Lina for crying in front of Shadi and for referring to their family as nuzuh (refugees)—he reminds her that they have it much better than so many Syrians living in tents. Education is a central issue: Lina confides in her brother-in-law that the family left Syria since it had become harder to get Shadi safely to school. Meanwhile, Karim worries that his son will not go to the school bus stop unaccompanied by his parents, because a friend told him that many Syrians have been kidnapped. Karim asks Lina to speak to the school principal, but, when she does, she is told the school officials cannot do anything unless the kids talk that way in front of a teacher. The parents resign themselves to raising a fearful child who has trouble concentrating in class. Karim frets about his son’s masculinity.
Karim becomes a news anchor and has an affair with Reem, a colleague, for reasons of career advancement. With his wife gone to visit her family in Syria, Karim spends the evenings with his lover and comes home late. At one point, Shadi sees his father together with Reem at the doorstep. Lina returns, deploring the fact that the regime has erected roadblocks all over the capital. But when Shadi eventually tells his mother what he saw, Lina leaves Karim and heads back to Damascus. Whatever happens back home, she says, is better than her son seeing his father betray his mother.
Sa-Na‘ud Ba‘da Qalil concludes with the family patriarch Najib lying alone in the hospital. The viewer sees shots of fires burning near his shop in Old Damascus, as regime officials announce on the radio that the great enemy of the Syrian people, Israel, has bombed a research center. The ending powerfully illustrates how the regime is determined that Syrians remain in denial amid the civil war, to the extent of cranking out such transparent nationalist propaganda. The father figure Najib represents a generation of Syrians who knew the government was lying but merely acted as if they believed in order to survive. [15. Rebecca Joubin, “The Politics of the Qabaday (Tough Man) and the Changing Father Figure in Syrian Television Drama,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 12/1 (March 2016), p. 63.]
Yet the storyline of Najib’s grandson offers no neat and sentimental counterpoint to the tragedy of the older generation. Shadi is not empowered by the mere act of attending school, as the regime-sympathizing narratives would have it, nor are his travails sensationalized with references to ISIS or religious extremism. His problems at school are what one would expect in a child growing up amid war and forced displacement. Sa-Na‘ud Ba‘da Qalil pays its characters and its audience the respect of putting the normal fears of a child under abnormal stress on a par with the fears of adults.